The Crest of the Commonwealth of Australia Treasury Portfolio Ministers
Picture of Tony Burke

Tony Burke

Minister for Population

3 April 2010 - 14 September 2010

Transcript of 05/07/2010

NO.018

Interview with David Speers

Sky News Australia

5 July 2010

SUBJECTS: Sustainable population - population targets - asylum seekers

COMPERE:

Welcome back. After settling the row with the mining industry over the Government's Resource Super Profits Tax, now Minerals Resource Rent Tax, Julia Gillard in the coming days is turning her focus to asylum seekers, an issue that is potentially just as damaging, if not more so, for Labor in some marginal electorates.

Well joining us now and a look at this debate and indeed his own portfolio of Population, the Minister for Sustainable Population, Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Tony Burke. Thanks for joining us.

TONY BURKE:

Good morning.

COMPERE:

Minister, asylum seekers is always a difficult issue for Labor. Julia Gillard's tone over the past week has been to very much emphasise that she understands, sympathises with and even feels the anxiety that people have over boat arrivals. She says she'll be announcing something in the coming days. What does she need to focus on, in your view?

TONY BURKE:

Well obviously I'm not in a position to be able to let you know an announcement that's not yet been concluded.

COMPERE:

Feel free.

TONY BURKE:

It would be a great first program for the show. But what the Prime Minister's done, what Julia's done, is make clear some of the parameters of the debate. It's the glib accusations of racism and things like that floating around that don't add to the debate. The truth is there's nothing compassionate in people risking their lives on the high seas. That's not a good outcome and not an outcome that anyone properly wants to see.

COMPERE:

Sure but are we going to see - can you tell us this much from the Prime Minister, simply just new language or an actual change in policy direction?

TONY BURKE:

I think you would have seen from the mining tax that when Julia Gillard flagged that she wanted to switch from consultations to negotiations and what you saw was a change in emphasis then a change in outcomes and some changes in approach.

PAUL KELLY:

Well does that mean Minister that the Government is going to be able to reduce the number of boats coming to this country?

TONY BURKE:

I think it's important with that Paul, first of all, to recognise some of the issues and to oversimplify the debate doesn’t helps anyone. You've had Tony Abbott oversimplify why the number of boats started to go down in 2001. It wasn't because of temporary protection visas or Nauru. As those measures were introduced, the number of boats went up. The number of boats then went down because of the invasion of Afghanistan and the fall of the Taliban.

There are some issues where external factors have a massive impact and no one can shy away from that. There are also areas where domestic policy is something which can play a role in different ways.

PAUL KELLY:

Seems to me, seems to me that answer you're giving, which is very much stressing external factors, means that the Australian Government can't do much to stop the boats. Is that essentially the position?

TONY BURKE:

That's not what I've said Paul.

PAUL KELLY:

It's not. It's not.

TONY BURKE:

I've said that you don't want to oversimplify.

PAUL KELLY:

So you can stop the boats, or at least you can stop the flow of boats?

TONY BURKE:

Now Paul, once again I'm saying you shouldn't oversimplify and you're wanting to come back with a simplification. The answer, you know…
PAUL KELLY:

It's what the Australian public wants to know surely.

SAM MAIDEN:

In terms of sending a message though, if you were for example to lift the current freeze on the processing of Sri Lankans, some of those people would go home, the situation has obviously improved overseas. What sort of message do you think it would send to people smugglers if you were able to show significant numbers of Sri Lankans, under a Gillard Government, being sent home in the next couple of weeks?

TONY BURKE:

Certainly the timing that Julia's referring to is very close to the timing of where the Government has to make a decision on what we do about the suspension of processing claims for the Sri Lankans. People who've come here from Afghanistan are still a further three months away because that was a longer suspension. Those issues will all come together. The issues that you've referred to will be part of the issues that the Cabinet and the Government works through this week. But once again, you're asking me to get in front of decisions that have not yet been concluded.

SAM MAIDEN:

But in terms of the options before you, I mean you were one of the architects of dismantling temporary protection visas in a former role. Can you rule out that the Government would return to any form of TPVs, particularly in situations like Sri Lanka and Afghan, where the situation can change and become safe to go back to at a later stage?

TONY BURKE:

Well certainly the experience of temporary protection visas was that when they were introduced, the number of asylum seekers went up, so in terms of…

COMPERE:

[Indistinct]

TONY BURKE:

…you know, what the evidence would point to, there are some reasons why we went for the policies we went for there. Also bear in mind, from the Howard years, let's not forget how these policies that Tony Abbott would want to bring back actually transpired. If you were on a temporary protection visa, once you got past the 2004 election, almost everybody became permanent. They did it anyway. If you were on Nauru, once the 2004 election was out of the way, you got on a plane and you came to Melbourne, all but two people on Nauru.

So there's some mythology that's been allowed to build up about what actually happened under those Howard years.

SAM MAIDEN:

What about funding Indonesia to set up temporary detention centre processing on site in Indonesia? Do you think that's something the government would consider?

TONY BURKE:

You're getting to a level of specifics and I'm not going to go into Cabinet's processes.

SAM MAIDEN:

Just one final question. I mean this isn't a hypothetical, just a question of current policy, if certain numbers of these people that are currently in limbo, if they are processed and found not to be refugees, what will happen to them next? What's the next process in terms of sending them home?

TONY BURKE:

Chris Evans would be more up to date than me on the processes for repatriations. There are different processes from country to country but the perspective has always been that if you have a case under the convention and you're successful in that case, then there's been a humanitarian program within Australia. If you're not successful and are found not to have come to Australia legally, then you don't have an entitlement to a visa.

GEORGE MEGALOGENIS:

Minister is it disappointing to you, as a politician, that this the second election campaign in four elections that this issue is aflame?

TONY BURKE:

I think it…

GEORGE MEGALOGENIS:

Just as a personal…

TONY BURKE:

George, just as anyone gets concerned about people fleeing persecution in any part of the world and, the drivers of that, I think any human should have a sense of decency and be concerned as these issues continue to inflame. There's always a genuine desire from the Australian people that they want people coming to Australia in an orderly way and you've got to understand that. But you also have to acknowledge that the international circumstances that cause people to have genuine claims, there's some horrific stories in them.

COMPERE:

Can I just ask you a question on that? Do you still, as a fundamental principle, believe that asylum seekers, people are allowed to come, are entitled to arrive in Australia by boat, claim asylum and are entitled to a refugee visa, if they deserve one?

TONY BURKE:

Well yeah, that's the critical question in that final phrase. The situation that is ideal is when people present to the UNHCR in different parts of the world and Australia then, with a very generous humanitarian program, works out a way of…

COMPERE:

But it doesn't always work in that way. So people who arrive here by boat, they are entitled to do that and they are entitled to make a claim for asylum?

TONY BURKE:

The process that Australia has used is that those claims get processed on Christmas Island. Obviously there's been some different arrangements while we have the suspension of claims put in place.

COMPERE:

Just the principle though, do you agree that people are entitled to arrive in Australian territory, be it the mainland or an offshore location, and claim asylum?

TONY BURKE:

Look when you talk about it in terms of entitlements; I'm explaining in terms of processes to what we do. The best situation is when people have not put their lives at risk on the high seas. It is good policy to try to prevent and try to discourage people from putting their lives at risk in that situation. People drown in those situations. So when you phrase it in terms of entitlement it almost sounds as though there's some may view it as a good thing for people to be following those paths. It's not.

You don't want people putting their lives at risk in that way.

PAUL KELLY:

On the question of Population Minister, you're charged with the responsibility of devising a new population strategy for the country. To what extent will you be looking at a population target or cap?

TONY BURKE:

One of the things I've been wary of Paul, in this debate, is where everyone's starting point has often been the national figure. People have said what matters is the national population needs to get to this total figure or it must not get to that total figure. Ultimately in a nation like our own what matters is the regional impact.

We could be a population of 10 million. If they all lived in Sydney we would have a problem. The spread of the population throughout the nation is important and, I dare to say, far more important than a discussion about the total national figures.

PAUL KELLY:

I understand that point but I mean there is a lot of pressure, there's a lot of pressure from people in terms of the argument about carrying capacity to say, given your discussion about regional differences, that there should be an overall target. I think what you're telling us is that you're steering away from that sort of target.

TONY BURKE:

Yeah, I have yet to see an argument where a target makes sense at a national level. There are situations, for example, when we had the mayors over in Canberra for the Local Government Conference a couple of weeks ago. We had some mayors from some areas in Western Australia where they are wanting to build communities where currently you mainly have only fly in, fly out.

Now in those areas when they talk about a population target that could be a housing supply they want to get to, building a community and some critical mass, it makes sense. It works and you can understand it exactly that they have a growth target they want to land on. You get to some regional areas where there are specific carrying capacity challenges with water infrastructure and instead of there being a concept of growth targets you have a question of asking why on earth you would try to get more people to lift that.

PAUL KELLY:

But how can you…

SAM MAIDEN:

Isn't that a bit disingenuous as well because the 36 million wasn't so much a target, it was a Treasury projection on current settings, so I mean aren't you really saying to people we won't say the big, scary number but we'll get there anyway?

TONY BURKE:

The Treasury projection, I've always said, was a projection and not a target. But the question I was asked was not about the inter-generational report. The question I was asked was about whether I believe in setting a national target. Certainly if it made sense for every part of Australia, you could add up the numbers but I'm yet to see where it does make sense for every part of Australia.